Our Little Duckie

Thomas Jones

  • The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
    Canongate, 199 pp, £12.00, October 2005, ISBN 1 84195 645 7

Margaret Atwood’s new novel is a reworking of the Odyssey, told largely from Penelope’s point of view. The Penelopiad is presented by its publisher as a retelling of a myth, but it isn’t quite that. The story of Odysseus’ return home from the Trojan War would qualify as a myth, but the Odyssey does not, if a myth is a story that doesn’t depend for its resonance and power on the details and language of any one version. The Penelopiad is written very precisely in response not to the myth of Odysseus, but to the Odyssey.

One reason for recasting an old work is that over time, the things that readers take for granted and the things that need explaining change. A modern reader of the Odyssey might well wonder what is going on in the mind of faithful Penelope, as she obediently waits twenty years for her husband to come home, weaving and weeping and putting off suitors and going to her room when Telemachus, her son, tells her to. As the first of her two epigraphs, each representative of an aspect of the Odyssey that she reassesses, Atwood takes an encomium to Penelope from Book 24, in E.V. Rieu and D.C.H. Rieu’s translation:

Shrewd Odysseus! . . . You are a fortunate man to have won a wife of such pre-eminent virtue! How faithful was your flawless Penelope, Icarius’ daughter! How loyally she kept the memory of the husband of her youth! The glory of her virtue will not fade with the years, but the deathless gods themselves will make a beautiful song for mortal ears in honour of the constant Penelope.

The striking thing about this apostrophe – spoken, though Atwood doesn’t say so, by Agamemnon’s ghost in Hades – is that it is addressed not to Penelope herself, but to Odysseus: it’s all about him, not her. The world of the Odyssey is a man’s world. In The Penelopiad, Penelope gets the chance to put her side of the story. One of the functions of literature, after all, is to give a voice to the voiceless, and that can include characters from other works of literature.

Now that I’m dead I know everything,’ Penelope’s narrative begins. ‘This is what I wished would happen’ – when she was alive, presumably – ‘but like so many of my wishes it failed to come true.’ The voice that Atwood gives Penelope’s ghost is modern, matter-of-fact, smart, funny, unillusioned: ‘Every once in a while the fogs part and we get a glimpse of the world of the living. It’s like rubbing the glass on a dirty window, making a space to look through. Sometimes the barrier dissolves and we can go on an outing. Then we get very excited, and there is a great deal of squeaking.’ This novel is one such outing, if without the squeaking. The narrator exists neither in the world she lived in nor in ours, but in limbo somewhere in between – the ideal place from which to tell her story. The narrative moves between recollections of her life on earth and encounters in Hades with the ghosts of the people she once knew.

The view through the dirty window allows Penelope to make one or two baffled remarks about a couple of bizarre aspects of modern life that we take for granted: satellite television and museums. ‘Some of us’ – the dead – ‘have been able to infiltrate the new ethereal-wave system that now encircles the globe, and to travel around that way, looking out at the world through the flat, illuminated surfaces that serve as domestic shrines’; ‘endless processions of people in graceless clothing file through these palaces, staring at the gold cups and the silver bowls, which are not even used any more. Then they go to a sort of market inside the palace and buy pictures of these things, or miniature versions of them that are not real silver and gold.’ These criticisms are too laboured and sneering to have much force. I assume they are intended to reveal the distance between Penelope’s time and now. They don’t succeed in making the familiar strange, but they do act as a reminder that the aspects of Penelope’s world which seem strange to us haven’t always been so.

After a brief account of her birth and her father’s attempt to drown her – she ‘never knew exactly why’ – Penelope moves swiftly on to describe her marriage, when she was 15. Various men compete for her by running a race, which Odysseus wins by cheating. Helen, already married to Menelaus, is unpleasant about it. ‘I think Odysseus would make a very suitable husband for our little duckie,’ she says. ‘She likes the quiet life . . . She can help him look after his goats. She and Odysseus are two of a kind. They both have such short legs.’ In the Odyssey, Agamemnon judges Penelope favourably in comparison to faithless Clytemnestra, who also gets a mention from Zeus at the very beginning of the poem, the story of her treachery framing the story of Penelope’s fidelity; in Atwood’s novel, Penelope mentions ‘my foul cousin Clytemnestra, adulteress, butcher of her husband, tormenter of her children’, but Helen is the woman she defines herself against most strongly.

What Penelope lacks in beauty she compensates for in intelligence and kindness. Helen is so beautiful she can afford to be cruel and stupid. Yet she is clever too in her own way: she knows how to use her charms to manipulate those around her, and she isn’t wrong about Odysseus’ suitability for Penelope. On their wedding night, ‘in return for his story about the scar, I told Odysseus my own story about almost drowning and being rescued by ducks. He was interested in it, and asked me questions about it, and was sympathetic – everything you would wish a listener to be.’

‘Why is it that really beautiful people think everyone else in the world exists merely for their amusement?’ Penelope wonders. But is her view of Helen fair? She has good reasons for hating her: not least her running off with Paris and so starting the Trojan War, leaving Penelope husbandless on Ithaca for the best part of two decades. Yet for every version of a story, there are other competing versions, and a reader of The Penelopiad might well wonder what Helen would have to say in reply. In Achilles, Elizabeth Cook’s 2001 recasting of the Iliad, Helen’s beauty is more of a curse than a blessing: it causes her to be raped, resented and intolerably lonely. Yet it is also – and this is something that every version of the story seems able to agree on – what keeps her alive when Menelaus retrieves her from Troy.

Helen isn’t the only woman that Penelope dislikes. There’s also her mother-in-law, Anticleia, a ‘prune-mouthed woman’, who eventually dies ‘worn out by watching and waiting for Odysseus to return and, I suspect, by her own bilious digestive system’. Penelope’s relationship with Odysseus’ old nurse, Eurycleia, is more complex: against custom, Penelope goes home with Odysseus after their wedding, rather than the pair of them staying in Sparta with her family. Friendless on Ithaca, Penelope is grateful, up to a point, for the interest that Eurycleia takes in her, ‘leading me about the palace to show me where everything was, and, as she kept saying, “how we do things here”’. And yet Penelope can’t help but resent Eurycleia, because ‘she left me with nothing to do . . . for if I tried to carry out any small wifely task she would be right there to tell me that wasn’t how Odysseus liked things done.’

These are thoughts and feelings that Penelope, when alive, kept to herself. As she did her scepticism about Odysseus’ tales of his travels. Has he been to the Land of the Dead, or ‘merely spent the night in a gloomy old cave full of bats’? Are the Sirens simply the staff of a ‘high-class Sicilian knocking shop’? Is the Cyclops just a ‘one-eyed tavern keeper’? ‘It was hard to know what to believe,’ Penelope says. ‘Any rumour was better than none, however, so I listened avidly to all.’ Even in the Odyssey, we only have Odysseus’ word for what happened between his leaving Troy and his arriving on Calypso’s island – and he’s a confirmed liar and teller of tall tales. In Atwood’s novel, Penelope knows that there are as many sides to a story as there are people to tell it.

The Penelopiad clings closely to the Odyssey when it comes to the facts of Odysseus’ return. Yet this is also where it departs most radically in Penelope’s interpretation of events. In the Odyssey, Penelope doesn’t recognise her husband at first; and even when he has revealed himself, and Eurycleia and Telemachus have confirmed his identity, she only believes it’s him once he has passed a test no one else would know the answer to. In The Penelopiad, she recognises him at once, but considers it prudent to pretend that she doesn’t:

It would have been dangerous for him. Also, if a man takes pride in his disguising skills, it would be a foolish wife who would claim to recognise him: it’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness . . . I described my sufferings at length, and my longing for my husband – better he should hear all this while in the guise of a vagabond, as he would be more inclined to believe it.

In the Odyssey, it is at Athene’s prompting that Penelope suggests the suitors compete for her hand by stringing Odysseus’ bow and firing an arrow through 12 axe handles, and she makes the suggestion without realising that Odysseus himself will be one of the competitors. In The Penelopiad, she has the idea precisely because Odysseus is present. Atwood makes Penelope a fully autonomous agent, in other words. But with agency comes the possibility of guilt.

The second of Atwood’s epigraphs is a brief episode from Book 22 of the Odyssey. After Odysseus has killed all the suitors, he asks Eurycleia to tell him which of his female slaves have been disloyal. She says 12 of them betrayed him, consorting with the suitors and behaving insolently towards Penelope and herself. The 12 maids are ordered to dispose of the suitors’ corpses and clean the hall. Then Telemachus takes them outside and kills them: ‘As when long-winged thrushes or doves get entangled in a snare . . . so the women’s heads were held fast in a row, with nooses round their necks, to bring them to the most pitiable end. For a little while their feet twitched, but not for very long.’ No more thought is given to them: the execution of the maids is a minor part of Odysseus’ reasserting of his power and reclaiming of his property rights.

But it’s a shocking episode, all the more shocking for its casual brutality. In her preface, Atwood writes that she has ‘always been haunted by the hanged maids; and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.’ In The Penelopiad, the 12 who are killed are Penelope’s favourites, whom she brought up herself from childhood, and in fact the most loyal of Odysseus’ slaves. They submitted to the suitors because Penelope told them to, to spy on them and report back to her. She knows she bears some of the responsibility for their deaths.

Interspersed with Penelope’s narrative are choruses performed by the murdered girls, such as ‘A Rope-Jumping Rhyme’, which begins: ‘we are the maids/the ones you killed/the ones you failed.’ Or ‘An Anthropology Lecture’:

For we were not simply maids. We were not mere slaves and drudges. Oh no! Surely we had a higher function than that! . . . Thus possibly our rape and subsequent hanging represent the overthrow of a matrilineal moon-cult by an incoming group of usurping patriarchal father-god-worshipping barbarians . . . Point being that you don’t have to get too worked up about us, dear educated minds. You don’t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We’re no more real than money.

This may seem to be spelling things out, an attack on crudeness and cruelty that is itself too crude; but that last sentence – ‘we’re no more real than money’ – is complex, and sometimes a blunt instrument is the right one. As Penelope says of Odysseus, ‘that was his style: stealthy when necessary, true, but he was never against the direct assault method when he was certain he could win.’ More to the point, Atwood thinks of the murdered slaves as real girls, imagining them fully as characters – if not quite as fully as she imagines Penelope – and giving them a voice.